If you’ve ever had a miscommunication or failed to comprehend what someone else was trying to say, it could be that your perceptual languages are getting in the way. Discovered by development psychologist Taibi Kahler, perceptual languages are the different processes of how people communicate. The way people communicate often carries more information than the words themselves, says clinical psychologist Nate Regier, cofounder of the communication-coaching firm Next Element.
“Perceptual languages are filters through which we interpret the world,” he says. “Six perceptual languages exist, and while we’re capable of speaking all of them, a preferred order becomes set by age 7. We have a favorite, and it’s called our base.”
People who learn to listen for other people’s perceptual languages connect better with others and improve their ability to recall information, says Regier. The way to identify which language someone is speaking is to listen for common words and phrases. You can also download the free smartphone app PocketPCM for Apple or Android, which gives examples of perceptual languages and helps diagnose personalities.
Here are the languages, and clues for identifying each one:
1. Thoughts Language. Someone who speaks in the thoughts language likes to talk about facts, details, characteristics, and features. They ask questions about who, what, where and why, and they want things to make sense. This language makes up 25% of the North American population, says Regier.
“Telltale signs of this person is someone who starts sentences with ‘I think’ or ‘Research suggests,’” he says. “They ask questions about data and time. They want to communicate in a logical way that is orderly and systematic.”
2. Opinions Language. A person speaking with the opinions language is like a judge and the world is their courtroom, says Regier. “Opinions are very different than thoughts because the language is based on values and judgment,” he says. “They start sentences with ‘In my opinion’ or ‘In my view.’ They use judgment words like ‘should,’ ‘could,’ ‘would,’ ‘ought,’ and ‘must.’”
Ten percent of people use opinions as their base perceptual language, says Regier.
3. Feelings Language. A person who speaks with the feelings language uses their heart as a compass, says Regier. “They focus on feelings and emotions,” he says. “They start sentences with ‘I feel’ or ‘I care.’”
Thirty percent of people have feelings as their base language.
4. Reactive Language. The person who uses the reactive language doesn’t have a filter and doesn’t think before they speak “They just say stuff,” says Regier. Look for words like “awesome” or sentences that start with, “I love” or “I hate.”
Twenty percent of people have reactions as their base language.
5. Action Language. The person who speaks with the action language uses a lot of verbs. “These people want to know, ‘What are we doing?’ and ‘Where are we going?’” says Regier. “They say phrases like, ‘Let’s go for it’ and ‘Cut to the chase.’ Life is about taking charge and getting it done.”
Five percent of the population uses action language as their base.
6. Reflections Language. A person who uses reflections language doesn’t talk a lot, but when they do their language is passive and nebulous, says Regier. “They say things like ‘Let me reflect on it,’ or ‘In my mind’s eye.’ Their mental process is uncontrolled and completely open.”
Ten percent of people use reflections language as their base.
How To Communicate Across “Languages”
Once you identify someone’s preferred perceptual language, use it to improve understanding, says Regier. “If you have a thinker boss who asks a feeling employee what they think, the employee might respond with, ‘It feels good to me,’ but they’re not answering the question and there can be miscommunications or assumptions,” he says.
When communicating an important message, translate the information into the listener’s perceptual language. “Determine what content you want to convey, then adjust the process of how you deliver it so it can be heard and understood,” he says. “The languages have nothing to do with the content of what is communicated, but the words will sound different depending on language.”
For example, a thinker boss can improve team communication by tailoring the message to the listener. If she’s talking to an employee who uses action language, she can change “What do you think?” to “Bring me up to speed on what’s happened and what we should do next.”
Focusing on perceptual languages can help you improve your memory. “It’s based on what cognitive psychologists call the Baker/baker paradox,” says Regier. “The more different associations your brain can make with what’s being said, the more easily it can be recalled later on.”
Recognizing someone’s perceptual language also allows you to anticipate other things about them, such as their character strengths, motivations, and values, says Regier. “Likewise, if we tune into the perceptual language, we can pick up on more of what the person intends and means when they are speaking, and therefore remember more of what’s most relevant to them,” he says.
A person who pays attention and speaks the listener’s perceptual language is often thought of as a great communicator. Bill Clinton is a master of using perceptual languages and studied under Kahler, says Regier. “He used it all the time and really tuned into other people,” he says. “Clinton and Trump have similar leadership styles, but Trump doesn’t care how he affects or connects and Clinton really did.”